Archaeologists are able to study previous lives of homo sapiens by digging up old artifacts and studying them. Then they write down their findings on another medium for future civilizations to discover and study. So far this process, plus a mix of oral and written tradition, has allowed us to study the past by examining a single continuous thread of human history.
Now with the proliferation of digital storage mediums, there is potential to break this thread due to "bit rot". Vint Cerf (one of the fathers of the internet) is concerned about a digital "dark age" because of two problems with digital artifacts: 1) how to safely protect and archive digital files; and 2) how future civilizations will read the files. After all, a recovered file is worthless if it cannot be opened because the original software or operating system no longer exists. Static images and text could likely be saved by transferring them to another static medium (papyrus printer?), but something interactive like your iMovie 4 project file will likely be lost forever.
Rhizome recently was awarded a $600,000 grant from CMU to tackle this exact problem. They aim to build something called the Webcorder. The idea is to create a contextual archive that preserves not only the original source file but also the original interactive environment it was created with. This acts as a sort of "digital vellum" as Cerf puts it.
I have some Fruity Loop 3 files I wish I could still open. The Rhizome idea seems like a great tool for that purpose, but I immediately see lots of problems - for instance, software licensing. It seems like some software vendors would prefer their software remain obsolete so folks will migrate to newer versions. What about computer viruses? Do we allow the capability to run those too?
Missing from the conversation is an assessment around the quality vs. quantity of data preserved. The sheer volume of daily recorded information we create nowadays far exceeds any amount ever before in human history. Do we really need to permanently save it all? Will future generations want to see Youtube mashups of cats or the third draft of my Word document from 7th grade english class? It's too easy to falsely assume it's all important, that we should just save it all and sort it out later. This is a cop-out, a way to avoid having to make a decision in the first place. How can we reasonably expect future generations to sort through all our crap? Do we give them a search engine? Does the archive come with its own friendly artificial intelligence?
While I find bit rot to be a pretty major inconvenience, it's a pretty slim probability that somehow we'll just slip into a digital "dark age". Buried deep within this idea of a "digital vellum" is some sort of existential angst. The same angst that makes a kid punch 5 + 3 into a scientific calculator just to double check the result. The same angst that justifies taking thousands of digital pictures we'll never look at again. I think we need to remember that humans are not defined or limited by what we have created in the past. We are far more resilient and resourceful than that.
Digital archival and retrieval is an important problem worth solving. But it's also ok to just delete a file sometimes. The world will keep turning.